11 December, 2009

Helen Gardner's "The Art of T.S. Eliot"

Gardner's classic book focuses on Eliot's poetic style, making it a welcome addition to a body of criticism which often neglects the prosodic elements of the poetry in favor of analyzing its images. Tracing Eliot's style in terms of his artistic maturation, Gardner identifies a turning point in his poetry from his earlier work, in which he often imitates the voices of other poets, to a newly developed independent style after “The Waste Land,” a style which underscores the musicality inherent in natural rhythms, in part by its use of semi-accentual meter, and allows Eliot equal access to the poetic and the prosaic in his work. A thematic evolution is evident in Eliot's corpus as well, and Gardner does not allow her attention to Eliot's mechanics to overshadow his core ideas. The content of his poetry finds its most complete development in the Quartets, whose mastery of theme is accompanied by the pinnacle of Eliot's mechanical expertise. Whereas “The Waste Land” identifies fear as the beginning of wisdom, “Ash Wednesday” and the post-conversion poems move beyond this Sophoclean sentiment to hint at a promised resurrection, while the Quartets take on a visionary quality in their ability to make present this resurrection in the midst of this movement towards wisdom through fear.

06 December, 2009

Guillaume Couture

Sometimes when I ought to be writing papers, I take enough of a break to read about random unrelated things on the internet. What an original form of entertainment. I stun myself on occasion with the brilliance of it.

Anyway, that's just to preface my observation that it's rather fun to read about one's family online. Especially prestigious ancestors. And moreover, most people in the US seem to have a scandalously scant knowledge of anything pertaining to French Canadian history. I mean, they might have a vague idea that there were "French and Indian Wars," but beyond that they are ignorant. Which is a pity, considering that certain parts of the country have been influenced by this colonial culture nearly as much as by the British one.

In chief, I mean this to prod anyone who is similarly ignorant to take a look at this Wikipedia article about my ancestor, Guillaume Couture, a prominent and fairly archetypal French Canadian settler of the early 1600s. For those of my relatives who are interested and read French, I might mention that the French Canadian version of the article is rather more complete.

In case it's not blatantly obvious, I might characterize this post as shameless promotion of an uncommon historical subject and/or desire to procrastinate, yet to feel productive by posting something.

30 November, 2009


I happened across this rather fascinating article regarding linguisitic fillers on Wikipedia the other day. It's actually less of an article than a listing of common fillers in different languages, but what would you say about fillers?

"Uh, it's sort of like, you know, um, when you use a thingymajig to, um, talk, er, about, like, things." A sentence almost entirely composed of fillers.

Essentially fillers are just generic sounds which can be interspersed with intelligible dialogue to denote that you haven't yet relinquished control of the conversation and are pausing merely to order your thoughts.

Some people hate them unneccessarily, assuming, it seems, that because overuse of fillers sounds rotten and uneducated, any use of them makes you automatically sound like an idiot. This is an exaggeration, of course. Fillers have certainly existed for at least several generations more than any of us have been around, reaching well back into an era when the educated populace was generally much better educated than the average American today. Probably even Shakespeare used fillers. I seem to remember a couple appearing more than once in dialogues of his plays.

On the other hand, it's rather tragic that our public officials, of all people, can't seem to string together a single sentence (without the back up of their speech writers) that doesn't include enough fillers to garble the meaning of the sentence almost beyond recognition. Ever heard Barack Obama speak without a teleprompter?

27 November, 2009

Some Ireland pictures




Posted by Picasa

Another very awesome time-lapse photo

This was taken by a guy in the physics lab here for one of my friend's physics presentations. It's a series of photos of one of those pens with the springy ends bouncing after the end has been pushed into the table and released (very fun to do, by the way).

24 November, 2009

Le goût du néant

Morne esprit, autrefois amoureux de la lutte,
L'Espoir, dont l'éperon attisait ton ardeur,
Ne veut plus t'enfourcher! Couche-toi sans pudeur,
Vieux cheval dont le pied à chaque obstacle bute.

Résigne-toi, mon coeur; dors ton sommeil de brute.

Esprit vaincu, fourbu! Pour toi, vieux maraudeur,
L'amour n'a plus de goût, non plus que la dispute;
Adieu donc, chants du cuivre et soupirs de la flûte!
Plaisirs, ne tentez plus un coeur sombre et boudeur!

Le Printemps adorable a perdu son odeur!

Et le Temps m'engloutit minute par minute,
Comme la neige immense un corps pris de roideur;
Je contemple d'en haut le globe en sa rondeur,
Et je n'y cherche plus l'abri d'une cahute.

Avalanche, veux-tu m'emporter dans ta chute?

This poem appears about 2/3 of the way through Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal and I'm going to do an analysis of it for my French Symbolists class, so I'll post a few preliminary thoughts about it here, going stanza by stanza. First I'll do another one of those literal translations so that it's a little clearer what I'm talking about to anyone who's not familiar with French. (The usual disclaimer about my translation being in no way an attempt at a poetic rendition stands firm.)

Morose soul, once amorous of the struggle,
Hope, whose spur once kindled your ardour,
No longer deigns to mount you! Lie there without modesty,
Old war horse whose foot stumbles at each obstacle.

Resign yourself my heart; sleep your brutish sleep.

Vanquished, exhausted soul! For you, old thief,
Love has no more savour, no more than war;
Farewell then, songs of brass and sighs of the flute!
Pleasure, tempt no more a heart sombre and sullen.

The adorable springtime has lost its fragrance!

And time swallows me up minute by minute,
As an immense snow a stiffening corpse;
- I contemplate from above the globe in its roundness
And I no longer seek there the shelter of a hovel.

Avalanche, why don't you carry me away in your fall?

I. The first stanza takes the form of a direct address of the poet to his soul, which the poet describes as an old war horse, once "amoreux de la lutte" but now worn out and lacking its rider, "l'espoir," which at one time had spurred it into action. The rather gnomic opening two lines only hints at the war horse imagery through the use of the words "éperon" and "enfourcher," but their regretful tone, together with the idea that the soul at one time could be spurred into action, and in fact loved the struggle does bestow upon it the sort of noble identity that the image of the battle charger would suggest.

Yet this sense of the soul's nobility drops away quickly in the close of the sentence. The second line, which preserves a formally conventional line break, is in fact heavily enjambed syntactically, the contre rejet at the beginning of the third line completing the idea that had begun with "L'Espoir," but had been suspended for a moment by the intervening semi-parenthetical clause which ends the second line with a description of hope. The delayed realization of what this hope is actually doing --that is, that it disdains the weariness of the soul and will not even stoop to be its guide any longer--delays our recognition of the mild contempt in which the poet in fact seems to hold his soul's weakness. Hope is not merely absent; it does not want to mount the worn-out soul. And thus the poet berates the "vieux cheval" which stumbles at every obstacle, sarcastically commanding it to lie down without shame ("sans pudeur"). The single-line exclamation that succeeds the opening quatrain echoes that stanza in its imperitive quality and directness of address, but nuances the image of surrender into that of resignment. This could be taken as a more positive view of the soul's submission, yet to give up the fight may well be to lose a major aspect of one's humanity--the sleep into which the soul sinks is not that of a poet's powerful genius; it is not even that of a noble war horse, but is merely a "sommeil de brute"-a brutish sleep.

II. In the second quatrain, Baudelaire sustains the tone of slight contempt, calling his soul not merely "morne," but vanquished and exhausted ("vaincu, fourbu"). It no longer bears even an ironic resemblence to a war horse, but rather seems more akin to an old petty thief ("vieux maraudeur"). This image affects the image of the struggle of the previous quatrain by even further diminishing its heroism: the fight has not been a war to gain what is the poet's by right, but the toil of the thief to rob others of items of small worth. Certainly the images--of love and the music of brass and flutes--in the stanza suggest that part of what the soul has been pursuing is Beauty, and this is hardly an item of small worth in Fleurs du Mal. Yet his reaction to Beauty is always ambiguous, if not directly hostile, and the images of love and music in this stanza cannot but conjure up the many poems in which he attacks these instances of Beauty as being cheapened conceptions of the real thing, or attacks Beauty "herself" as deceiving him by making herself inaccessible except through such tawdry--and mortal--intimations. These pleasures have been nonetheless tempting, and his appeal to them to "tempt no longer a dark and sullen heart" reveals that he sees them as something dangerous, liable to lure him into a struggle which he no longer has strength to conduct. Whatever love and the songs of brass or sighs of the flute have been in the past, however, it is not even merely his weariness that stops his pursuit, but the utter lack of taste in his "somber heart" for their pleasures.

Thus in this second stanza we see a development of the poet's attitude towards his spirit and of his understanding of its inaction, which is not simply a result of brutish indolence, but which has at its root a loss of delight in those pleasures which once tempted him. Yet he still, as it were "wishes to wish these things" (cf. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" IV). He still has not purged himself of regret for a time when such pleasures could mean something to him, and thus the brief exclamation that follows the quatrain laments that "Le Printemps adorable"--the season of new life and renewed beauty--"a perdu son odeur."

III. No longer addressing his spirit, the poet spends the final quatrain in a melancholy meditation on his own place in time and in the universe. The loss of savor in life becomes here a descent into the abyss of time, which--and the word conjures up an image of time as some ravenous monster--swallows up (engloutit) the poet. This image is immediately linked to another, even more sinister metaphor, whereby the action of this monstrously personified time is described as an enormous fall of snow that buries and freezes a stiffening corpse. Time's action becomes nothing more than a process of deadening the person to any outside influences, just as the above two previous two quatrains suggest an emotional dulling of the person's spirit. The immobility of the soul in the face of the struggle we now understand in terms of the immobility of this corpse, unresponsive, buried, and (both emotionally and physically) frozen.

Contemplating in the next two lines the world and the ravages of time, the poet knows himself to be helpless to find shelter from the storm; even the slight defense of a shack is unavailable to him. To use the word "cahute," with its connotations of dinginess and dilapidation, is to recall the description of the soul as a "maraudeur" in the second quatrain and the correspondingly low estimate of pleasure as a valid object of struggle. Pleasure would be one of these near-worthless shelters from the onslaught of the abyss, his taste for them a distraction from the "goût du néant" (taste for nothingness) of the title. He had once hoped for at least its shelter, which explains why at the end of the second quatrain he still lamented the loss of springtime's odor: he had not yet reached the point where he can eschew such shelter entirely.

Now, by contrast, he no longer seeks it. In contemplating "la globe en sa rondeur" he recognizes the inevitability of stiffening like a corpse as his soul becomes too worn in the fruitless struggle for beauty and he understands the ultimate uselessness of makeshift shelters from the storm. Thus his last line takes the form of a direct address, not this time to his soul, but to the avalanche, an image that directly recalls the "neige immense" that is his metaphor for all-devouring time. He now fully assents to the once contemptible weakness of his soul, relinquishing action to beseech the "avalanche" to carry him away into the abyss.

22 November, 2009

"Only through time time is conquered"

Right, so time-lapse photography is possibly one of the coolest things I've ever seen or ever will, in my opinion. And how neat is it that T.S. Eliot had a time-lapse portrait given his fixation with the theme of time, the still point, the Bradleian view of history....

Honestly, I don't think I've ever seen something that quite so niftily illustrates Eliot's conception of history as a "pattern of timeless moments" (see Little Gidding, V). Each moment is an independent reality, yet (paradoxically) dependent on all of history, in the sense that the newness of the moment in some sense consists in its reevaluation and recreation of all that has gone before. It might sound like incredibly sketchy philosophy if you're not familiar with it, but it's really quite sensible; I'm just not expressing it very well. But the basic idea is that all that has gone before forms a new reality when united with the new moment, which must necessarily alter our understanding of what has gone before.

It's a sort of relativism that asserts the relativity of human knowledge while never once doubting the power of faith and God to provide us with the truth. On their own, humans will never be able to discern the "pattern" of the world because the progression of time ensures that the pattern is new in every moment; as he expresses it in East Coker II:

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

Yet the fact that for the Creator of time "all time is eternally present" (Burnt Norton, I) means that for Him, the pattern is eternal, and eternally revolving about the "still point". This very still point is then the reason that humans are (again, paradoxically) able to have knowledge of Reality; because this "still point" is no less than the Incarnate Word, whose entry into the world gives us a sure "point of view" that does not falsify by virtue of its limitation, unlike all fallible human viewpoints. The Church which preserves the Truth of Christ's revelation is then the only path to sure knowledge for a human.

That's the basic philosophical idea behind all of Eliot's poetry, though it's most perfectly developed in the Quartets when he begins to emphasize not merely the necessity of purgation and courage to achieve faith, but more importantly the way of love. Things just become ridiculously beautiful towards the end there.

But here I am with six papers to write and I can't start getting into all of that now. I just really liked this picture when I saw it for a variety of reasons and thought I'd post it. Maybe I'll try to do a more thorough explication of the Bradleian position one of these days, or better still, of the Bergsonian position, which I understand somewhat better because I've actually read a significant amount of Bergson.

Familiar compound ghost?
(Little Gidding II)

T.S. Eliot: The Scholarly Conversation

The infamous and to some extent deliberately cultivated difficulty of T.S. Eliot's highly allusive poetry has produced an onslaught of critical attempts to elucidate it in light of one “crucial” insight or another. These attempts have been more or less successful according to the degree in which they actually address the main thrust of his poetic legacy instead of wandering off, as Heaney complains is too often the case, in pursuit of one or another esoteric reference to literary tradition.

The poems are in many respects pastiches of literary reference, and though critics agree on the ubiquity of such references, they disagree about whether a comprehensive understanding of these is necessary to understand the poetry. Gardner and Heaney present compelling cases for initially encountering the poetry on its own ground, an attractively unpretentious approach when one considers the plethora of attempts to read Eliot's entire corpus in terms of some arcane paraphrasing of one dead author or another. Arguments such as Chinitz's regarding the influence of popular song or Lowe's comparison of Raskolnikov and Prufrock—though valuable in some respects—will often give too much weight to a single influence, implicitly suggesting that Eliot's work is intrinsically esoteric, accessible only to the scholars who can chase down such references and solve them as one might work out a puzzle. A reasonable balance is found in the work of scholars such as Moody, Manganiello, and Rogers, who admit the power of the allusions to enrich an understanding of the poetry and believe the major ones to be worth pursuing in consequence, but who stop short of reducing the poetry to the sum of its references.

Having studied with some of the leading thinkers of the early twentieth century at Harvard and abroad, Eliot had a clear set of philosophical convictions, and study of these philosophical influences forms a significant subcategory of Eliot criticism. There is less disagreement on this subject than there is about the importance of allusion in his work. Though Heaney still holds the philosophical underpinnings of the poetry to be potentially distracting, critics from Gardner in the 1950s to contemporary writers such as Moody, Perl and Childs have agreed on the relevance of Eliot's philosophy to a comprehension of the intellectual arc of his poetry. Brooker and Childs, authors well-versed in Bergsonism and Bradleanism, substantially treat Eliot's relation to these thinkers, while Perl hones in on the often overlooked influence of Eastern philosophy, all making welcome contributions to the understanding of Eliot's early poetry. Schneider, Clark, and Thomas Howard (not cited here) treat Eliot's later career, when his thought is more completely his own, verifying his new preoccupation with Anglo-Catholic theological concepts such as the Incarnation as well as his continued interest in the concepts of time, history and change. This area of criticism manifests, perhaps because of the general coherency and clarity of Eliot's philosophical theory, a much greater degree of consensus than is often seen among his critics, and is a fertile area of scrutiny.

Less helpful in general is the movement, born of what often seems a voyeuristic interest in Eliot's (largely exaggerated) psychological neuroses, to interpret his work in terms of these biographical details. Däumer, Chinitz, and Cuda speculate on the effect of Eliot’s “inhibitions” regarding domineering women, romantic assignations, and medical operations to support their interpretations of his work, and the result is generally unsatisfying as a macroscopic explanation, though occasionally interesting in details.

While literary, philosophical, and biographical influences are common focuses, the body of criticism suffers from a relative dearth of comprehensive treatments of Eliot’s prosody. Gardner and Hartman excepted, many critics seem bewildered by the peculiar metricality of Eliot’s “free verse.” When critics such as Rogers, Sanders, and Unger make incidental forays into prosodic issues, the analysis of one will often differ wildly from that of another, and it is often true that allegations that, for instance, a certain passage “is” an abortive sonnet are not backed up and seem presupposed for the sake of the main argument.

21 November, 2009

T.S. and Valerie Eliot

Charles Hartman on "The Discovery of Meter"

Hartman's examination of the manifestations of meter in free verse focuses on Eliot's poetry in this chapter, in which he defines his verse as vers liberé and attempts to discover precisely what qualities characterize vers liberé. Eliot's prosody seeks to draw out the rhythmic elements of common speech, and Hartman identifies syntactic parallelism and counterpoint as important features of this attempt. Particularly important is Eliot's practice of approximating stricter metrical forms before departing from them: it is a truly “loosened up” verse in the sense that he allows himself to move in and out of this formal metrical structure. The only major aspect of Hartman's argument at which I cavil is his categorical denunciation of Helen Gardner's evaluation of certain of Eliot's passages as accentual. Hartman asserts that Gardner has fallen prey to the “fallacy of calling 'accentual' all verse which has accents” (115), but never backs this statement up, presenting an “alternative” understanding of Eliot's prosody which is actually quite compatible with the idea that Eliot occasionally takes advantage of the incantatory effect of heavily accentual verse, such as in the “Lady of Silences” passage in “Ash Wednesday.” On the whole, however, he is laudably faithful to direct textual evidence in his discussion of the basic rhythmicality and musicality of Eliot's syntactic form.

Commenting on the chapter from Free Verse: An Essay in Prosody; overall a quite recommendable book.

18 November, 2009

Paul Douglass on “Eliot's Cats: Serious Play behind the Playful Seriousness"

Douglass turns his attention to one of Eliot's works that has been almost wholly ignored in the critical world. The Book of Practical Cats is not mere fluff to be dispensed with entirely, Douglass argues, but is, despite being intended for children, a work which reflects many aspects of Eliot's corpus and which, by its very simplicity, sheds light on some of these. The rhythm of the poems in this collection not only displays Eliot's metric virtuosity, but unveils many of the techniques he uses elsewhere, such as his affinity for four-stress rhythm and his tendency to have anapestic and dactylic rhythms slip in and out of one another to heighten the lilting feeling of a passage. In terms of content, the Book of Practical Cats, with its character sketches of uncannily human felines, aims to explore the “battle between the ego and social self” (115), which Eliot reads as a preoccupation of the Quartets as well. The book “accepts its own fascination with human imperfection” (115) and through its rollicking tone, its rhythm, and its clever but benevolent satire, choreographs a jubilant dance that shows the reader the possibility of rejoicing in the foible-ridden but wonderfully variegated ranks of humanity.

01 November, 2009

You know you're from Maine if...

(These are, for the most part, excellent.)

1.. you've had arguments over the comparative quality of Fried Dough.
2.. you get four inches of snow and you call it "a dusting."
3.. you don't understand why there aren't fried clamshacks elsewhere in the country.
4.. you know what an Irving is and the location of 15 of them.
5.. you knew all the flavors at Perry's Nut House.
6.. your car is covered in yellow-green dust in May.
7.. you can drive the Augusta rotaries without slowing down.
8.. you've hung out at a gravel pit.
9.. you think a mosquito could be a species of bird.
10.. you once skipped school and went to Bar Harbor, Old Orchard Beach or Reid State Park.
11.. you've almost fallen asleep driving between Houlton and Presque Isle.
12.. you know how to pronounce Calais and Machias.
13.. you've gone to a Grange bean supper.
14.. at least once in your life, a seagull pooped on your head.
15.. at least once in your life you've said, "It smells like the mill in here." Yep
16.. there's a fruit and vegetable stand within 10 minutes of your house.
17.. your idea of a traffic jam is being the second car at the stoplight.
18.. you wonder out loud if the state can just close its borders to people from away.
19.. your house converts to a B&B every July & August for people from away that you happen to know.
20.. all year long you're tracking sand in the house; from the beach in the summer and the roads and sidewalks in the winter.
21.. you have a front door but no steps to get to it.
22.. you use "wicked" as a multi-purpose part of speech.
23.. you have to have the sand cleaned out of your brake system every spring.
24.. you do the majority of your shopping out of Uncle Henry's.
25.. you've ditched the car on the side of the road somewhere because you thought you saw some good fiddleheads!
26.. you've had a vacation from school just to help the family pick potatoes.
27.. you know a lobster pot is a trap, not a kettle. Of course!
28.. you know not to plant tender crops until the last full moon in May.
29.. when you go to the dump and bring back more than you brought.
30.. when people from "away" ask for directions and you intentionally led them in the opposite direction they wanted to go.
31.. you watch "Murder She Wrote" and snicker at the stupid fake accents.
32.. you know how to find the rope swing at the quarry.
33.. you take the New Hampshire toll personally.
34.. you feel really really good when you cross the Piscatiqua River bridge into Kittery.
35.. you always wave when you see a Maine license plate in another state.
36.. a roll of duct tape and a can of flat black spray paint will get your car to pass inspection.
37.. you have to replace your mailbox yearly because ofthe town plow.
38.. you know how to get from Cumberland to Fryeburg via the "Egypt Road".
39.. you can remember when the "Egypt Road" was a dirt track through the woods.
40.. when you're supposed to dress up, you wear plaid flannel with a tie.
41.. you know that Moody's Diner does NOT take credit cards!
42.. you actually miss the fifteen below zero mornings in winter (that have been eliminated by the greenhouse effect) because you enjoyed running or walking to workin the silent crystal stillness, punctuated by an idling car engine as the owner waited indoors for the car to warm up before his mad dash from warmth to warmth, and your lungs did not freeze; thank you verymuch for your concern.
43.. the word "stove" refers to what you did to the right front fender of your truck after you've had a wicked bring-up on a rock.
44.. there's too much "stuff" in your 2 "cah" garage to get either of your cars into it.
45.. you know the smell of Woodsmens fly dope.
46.. you eat supper at night and dinner at noon.
47.. your idea of a traffic jam is ten cars waiting to pass a tractor on the highway.
48.. "vacation" means going to the Allagash for the weekend.
49.. you measure distance in hours. Still do!
50.. you know several people who have hit moose more than once.
51.. you often switch from "heat" to "A/C" in the same day.
52.. you use a down comforter in the summer.
53.. your grandparents drive at 65 mph through 13 feet of snow during a raging blizzard, without flinching.
54.. you see people wearing hunting clothes at social events.
55.. you install security lights on your house and garage and leave them both unlocked.
56.. you carry jumper cables in your car and know how to use them.
57.. there are 4 empty cars running in the parking lot at the convenience store at any given time.
58.. you design your kid's Halloween costume to fit over a snowsuit.
59.. driving is better in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow.
60.. you know all 4 seasons: almost wintah, wintah, still wintah and construction.
61.. you know what it means when someone says they are going upstreet.
62.. you can actually see the milky way. Yes
63.. you can use your brights on the highway. Yes
64.. L.L. Bean's not just a store, it's a way of life. Absolutely
65.. you encounter any sign reading: "Next Exit: 246 miles".
66.. the nearest mall is 2 hours away.
67.. you have to yield for snowmobiles.
68.. the state closes down at five o'clock.
69.. "The City" means exclusively Portland. Yes
70.. "salt damage" is a viable insurance claim.
71.. all of the traffic lights blink yellow at 10 o'clock at night.
72.. it's not a storm, it's a nor'eastah.
73.. you say room and people think you are saying rum.
74.. you can buy a minivan with four wheel drive and chained tires.
75.. all addresses start with RR#
76.. a rest stop means a pit toilet and a picnic table.
77.. you know Moxie isn't a woman's magazine.
78.. you go "off-roading" before and after school.
79.. you eat ice cream with flavors like 'MooseTracks" and "Maine Black Bear".
80.. you know that a chocolate doughnut is not a white doughnut with chocolate frosting.
81.. you call any long sandwich an "Italian".
82.. you eat potato chips with flavors such as "clamdip", "ketchup" and "dill pickle".
83.. the smell of clam flats at low tide, while disgusting, brings back fond memories of childhood trips to the beach.
84.. you call the basement "downcellah."
85.. your grandmother called shorts "shots".
86.. you live in a mobile home and have a brand new car and a satellite dish.
87.. you see a beat up Ford Pickup with a bumper sticker that reads: "I'd rather be bowhunting."
88.. you can hum the tune of "You should have bought it when you saw it at Mardens?"
89..You know what the Old Port is.

27 October, 2009

Manganiello on Dante and Eliot

Citing Pound's acknowledgment of Eliot as "the true Dantescan voice" of the modern world, Manganiello explores Dante's influence on Eliot, outlining Eliot's literary, thematic, and theological/philosophical indebtedness to the Florentine poet (Qtd. Manganiello, 1). Manganiello draws a connection between Eliot's preoccupation with "Death By Water" and Dante's Ulysses, recognizing in both the same core recognition of the dangers of seeking without faith, but finding Eliot's development of this theme in "Marina" to mirror more closely the pilgrim Dante's own journey. The motif of exodus which Dante uses throughout his Purgatorio similarly informs "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men," developing into garden imagery reminiscent of Dante's Earthly Paradise with the utterance of the Word in the desert. Underlying these thematic similarities is, however, a deeper correspondence between the two poets, manifested in their parallel political views, that consists in their common understanding of experience in time as having meaning only in relation to the timelessness of the "love which moves the sun and the other stars." Manganiello's argument focuses on Eliot's major poems, but takes into account his essays and minor poems to assemble a complete model of his thought; he also balances close readings of passages that show a peculiar degree of linguistic similarity to Dante's work with a fine attention to the philosophical arc of the poetry.

26 October, 2009

Marie de France

One of the poets whom we're studying in Medieval Lit. I highly recommend her lais, which are both amusing and insightful. To anyone interested in fairy tales, they're especially interesting, because many of the elements of the classic European fairy tales can be found here.

Not so shabby...

Eliot in general

Erudite and imbued throughout with a highly sophisticated wit, T.S. Eliot’s body of poetry undergoes a dramatic conversion in tone from a sense of pessimism regarding the disjointed state of the modern world in his early work to a humble realization that the ideal for which he longs is unattainable in this life. The poetic career that began with the bleak picture of J. Alfred Prufrock’s utter inarticulateness in the face of the “overwhelming question” of modern urban life ends with a sense of joyful anticipation of the “Still point,” the true fulfillment of the Bradleian “Absolute” that so enthralled him as a student of philosophy (“Prufrock” 10; “Burnt Norton” 2.16).

The sense of conflict in Eliot’s poetry derives from his acute desire for the unification of society in a coherent and meaningful whole and his equally acute awareness that modern life, as quintessentially demonstrated in the fragmentation of the modern city (one of Eliot’s primary images), fails to live up to this ideal. The dramatic quality of his poetry arises from this very tension and is perhaps most apparent in “The Waste Land,” where an essentially dramatic structure—the quest motif—underlies the lyric passages so that their meaning is only comprehensible in light of a certain action or (initially) lack thereof. Contributing to the sense of conflict is Eliot’s ability to ventriloquize a multiplicity of voices, a talent which adds to the dramatic quality of the poetry and which reaches its acme in “The Waste Land.” Not only does he make use of a variety of characters’ voices, such as that of Tiresias, the typist, or Madame Sosostris to drive home the sensibility of conflict; he also ventriloquizes other artists through his ubiquitous allusions to deepen the ambiguity of his images and even of his metric forms. These forms and images are revealed to be peculiarly multifaceted as we recognize allusions which layer the simple picture of the girl in the hyacinth garden with overtones of Tristan and Iseult’s tragic love, or which put the prose poem “Hysteria” in the context of Baudelaire’s similar experimentation with form that led to the exploration of the labyrinthine modern city in the prose poems of “Spleen de Paris.” Through this cubist method of fragmenting his images and forcing us to make unintuitive connections between, say, Sweeney and Agamemnon (“Sweeney Among the Nightingales”) or between Queen Elizabeth I and the mundane typist (“The Waste Land”), Eliot is pushing the reader to an acute perception of the modern world’s lack of cultural unity. His bathetic juxtaposition of images of grand cosmic significance with startlingly mundane, even sordid scenes of modern life reinforces the tone of pessimism with which he treats the emptiness of a world preoccupied with “the profit and the loss” and disconnected from tradition (WL.IV, 3).

A spectacular shift in tone characterizes Eliot’s post-conversion poetry. He continues to recognize the lack of cultural unity and accompanying societal malaise, but the quest of “What the Thunder Said” has been transformed into a more personal journey towards the emptiness which will allow God to fulfill him. Corresponding to this shift in tone is a move towards a more resolute, calm diction and imagery. Eliot retains his allusiveness, but the diction of the highly prophet of tradition almost arrogant in his education largely disappears in favor of one who, like his Magi describing their journey with a simplicity that lends conviction to their account, speaks in a more down-to-earth syntax about a truth which would make a mockery of mere eloquence. The form of his poetry consequently moves towards a more conversational accentually-based meter, imitating other metrical patterns rarely and, when doing so, drawing on a highly significant association in a manner that enhances the musicality of the sequence, as we see in “Dry Salvages” II. Moreover the allusions no longer shock the reader with a kaleidoscopic picture of the fragmented world. The words of Lancelot Andrewes (Journey of the Magi) or echoes of the Bhagavad Gita (“Dry Salvages”) do not aim at the violent juxtapositions of the Sweeney poems or “The Waste Land,” but are rather presented as objects of the poet’s meditation; they are not examples of the modern world’s dissolution, but rather form part of a conversation in which Eliot climbs to higher apprehension of his faith through the work of these “dead master[s]” (“Little Gidding). Eliot’s poetry reflects his realization that through the modern world suffers from this fragmentation, the Incarnation of Christ provides a real solution and puts mankind into contact with the ideal that is the whole of reality.

24 October, 2009

Donald Childs on T.S. Eliot's "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"

Prefacing his article with an argument for “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”'s temporal antecedence to Eliot's rejection of Bergsonism, Childs performs a cogent close reading of “Rhapsody” in terms of Bergson's thought. The moon and the street lamp—the two light sources of the poem—both prompt the speaker to meditation, affecting his memory, but the influence of the former is importantly opposed to that of the latter. The lamp illuminates certain objects with a clear but circumscribed light, and its effect is to stir up what Bergson calls the practical memory (479)— memory limited and defined by the intellect's association of the past with a specific object of present experience. The moon, however, dissolves the street lamp's string of associations and as the lamp dies down the night's images are understood in terms of a medley of disparate experiences: this is the influence of Bergson's "pure memory" (479), memory understood in terms of its entire indeterminate content. The end of the poem Childs reads as a painful return of the practical intellect after a near-mystical approach to apprehension of the whole, an apprehension which, he notes, will be the consistent object of Eliot's quest for the ideal.

19 October, 2009

Eliot by Wyndham Lewis

Anthony Cuda on Eliot: "T.S. Eliot's Etherized Patient"

From its first appearance in "Prufrock" to its reemergence in "East Coker" IV, the trope of the "patient etherized upon a table" is central to Eliot's poetry, Cuda argues; its development occurs in the undercurrent of conflict between passivity as a danger to the individual's spiritual progress and its necessity as a precursor to surrender to the divine. Passivity in "Prufrock" is to be feared: the image of the patient intensifies the sense of the vulnerability of the person left open to the action of random influence. Later theological development augments Eliot's awareness of the dangers associated with passivity- when allowed free reign in the conscience, pernicious influences have a disastrous effect. Yet Eliot's simultaneously growing recognition of the necessity of humble self-surrender to God, as particularly shown in "East Coker," creates a drastic conflict within his understanding of what it means to be passive. Eliot's eventual conclusion is that the terror of surrender can be accompanied by great spiritual joy if the passivity is a freely chosen acceptance of purgation; passivity is thus "transfigured in the light of the divine" (413). Cuda's argument hangs together, but is not improved by several significant departures into the realm of psychological/ biographical speculation which do no more than give a less-than-compelling recapitulation of the points which Cuda accurately proves from the poetry itself. Such digressions serve to make excessively long an otherwise creditable essay.

04 October, 2009

Elisabeth Däumer on T.S. Eliot

One of the articles I recently read for the 25-source annotated bibliography I'm writing for Junior Poet is “Charlotte Stearns Eliot and "Ash-Wednesday"'s Lady of Silences” by Elisabeth Däumer. It's not the best article on Eliot I've read thus far, being rather too focused on biographical detail and psychological speculation to be entirely convincing (reading too much biographical detail into an artist's work, especially one as consciously impersonal as Eliot always raises a red flag).

Basically Däumer aims to explain Eliot's depiction of women in “Ash Wednesday” as the poetic resolution of his highly ambiguous response to his mother's significant influence on the young Eliot's personal and artistic development. Compared to the semi-misogynistic portrayal of women in his earlier poetry, “Ash Wednesday”'s picture of the “Lady of Silences” and the “Holy Mother” is much more positive, describing womanhood in terms of the Beatrician/Marian ideal which directs the poet towards heaven. Yet he retains the ambiguity of his relationship with his at times overly influential mother by emphasizing that the women of “Ash Wednesday” are destructive forces as much as they are creative. They must reduce the speaker to a heap of dry bones before their reception of the Word can restore him to life.

24 September, 2009

Some views of Venice

In front of San Marco


Gondolas: available for rent at the low, low rate of 60 euro a half hour!

One of innumerable bridges over canals


Marino, the glass-blowers' island

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19 September, 2009

Picasa 3

I've just downloaded Picasa 3 from google, and I'm quite fond of it. It enables all the editorial functions of Photoshop that I actually used, and allows me to upload pictures to this blog very easily. So there'll probably be occasional posts of Rome pictures whenever I begin to feel particularly nostalgic or have nothing better to say. Because now (unlike when I was actually in Rome, and my family couldn't see my pictures) there's no inconvenience to uploading them at all.

The Eternal City




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Rome campus



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18 September, 2009

Henry V, Act III

Two words: Am Civ. A good UDer will catch my reference. This speech fairly well captures my outlook just now... and this is a crucial part of any English-speaker's education.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Just a thought...

I've noticed: it's not unusual for people to become offended and to rapidly lose all respect for a critic if this critic dares to cross the fence that's been raised between religion and academics in almost every sphere outside UD (and why should a fence be there at all when both have the aim of pursuing truth?). A reading of a poem or novel that finds a significance that resonates to any degree with Christianity is automatically assumed (not even so much by academia as by amateurs who have a blatantly liberal education and an unfortunately close-minded reaction when exposed to anything smacking of tradition) to be that of an ignorant pietist, determined to find validation for his or her faith in the works of every writer of note.

So avoid speaking of imagery of redemption, redemptive suffering, fulfillment in the transcendental. Such subjects are too close to the danger zone. Anthropologists and scholars of religious phenomena would likely have no objection to a person finding such references in the smallest minutiae of cultural production (though these scholars tend to have a rather different explanation for the existence of such ideas than I might, tending in the tradition of their discipline to put the cart before the horse and assuming that the ideas exist because of the ritual, not the rituals because the ideas are true). But to the reactionary, the findings are offensive and untrue because all-too familiar.

Why indeed should we "make everything Christian"? Why be so close-minded as to claim all good art as progeny of our own religion? I answer: we don't have to contort every text to fit within the narrow lens of an archaic and domineering religion. The lens isn't at all narrow! A true work of art, I think everyone will admit without too many qualifications will address some aspect of truth. And certainly it is qualified to address and wrestle with the most fundamental desires of man. However original one may wish to be in defining these fundamental desires, the fact remains that many artists see among them the desires to be forgiven, absolved of guilt, and to find meaning in something outside oneself. Yet when one finds these in art, many are offended because recognizing this desire recognizes an implicit desire for Christianity. For the fulfillment of these desires - in a totally unexpected way - is precisely what Christianity offers.

14 September, 2009

El Desdichado translation

Here's the promised translation of El Desdichado, done verse by verse. I'm only giving it a literal translation for the purposes of analysis; I have neither the time nor the skill to translate it poetically.

Note that this poem is in the classic form of the French sonnet, which differs slightly in arrangement from both the Petrarchan and the English sonnets. Ideally, there are two initial verses of four lines each (octet) and then two verses of three lines each (sestet). And of course, there's a fairly regular rhyme scheme, just as in the classical English sonnet. Alternate ABAB rhymes in the two parts of the octet, and the sestet's pattern is: CDD CEE.

Je suis le Ténébreux, – le Veuf, – l’Inconsolé,
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie :
Ma seule Étoile est morte, – et mon luth constellé
Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

"I am the man of shadows, - the widower, - the unconsoled,
The Prince of Aquitaine of the ruined Tower:
My only Star is dead, - and my starry lute
Carries the black Sun of Melancholy."

The "Prince of Aquitaine" is not a random image (no image is in this poem); it refers to Godfried d'Aquitaine, a medieval lord famous for his misfortunes, who came from the same provence Nerval came from. The connection is not crucial to understanding the poem, but it does at least give you an idea of why he uses that image in particular to emphasize his desolation. And why is he desolate, why a widower and unconsoled? His "only star is dead" - so there's been a death of some sort, figurative or literal, a loss of someone who would, perhaps, have consoled him. Now his "starry lute" - a musical instrument equipped to bring light to the darkness (and, as Nerval makes explicit by the end of the poem, a reference to Orpheus) brings only the "black sun of melancholy", "black sun" being a technical term from alchemy to describe a powerful "negative light" (though the idea is quite absurd) that is not merely the absence of light, but its inverse. The imagery as a whole in this stanza is quite easy to follow all in all, giving us a picture of a sort of "dark night of the soul" or of a descent into a realm of overwhelming darkness.

Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé,
Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d’Italie,
La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon cœur désolé,
Et la treille où le Pampre à la Rose s’allie.

"In the night of the Tomb, You who consoled me,
Give me back Posilipo and the Italian sea,
The flower which pleased my desolate heart,
And the trellis where the Vine and the Rome are united."

Posilipo and the Italian sea are partly autobiographical references to a summer he spent with an Englishwoman in a town near Naples. Yet like the Prince of Aquitaine imagery, the self-referential aspect of this line is really not the main point. There is, of course, the larger image (almost cliched in Nerval's time as well as ours) of the warm, brilliant south as another world in which consolation was possible. The syntactical confusion in the first line of this stanza - "Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé" - forces us to wonder whether the speaker is referring to himself as metaphorically dead, or to the one who consoled him as literally dead. Or perhaps both, the former as a result of the latter? And we also get a confirmation here of what the phrase "the unconsoled" (as opposed to "the unconsolable" or something tantamount) made us suspect in the first stanza: there was once someone who had consoled him, and she is now gone, just as the comfort of the time in Italy, of the lost flower are gone. He longs for a return of the trellis which made possible the union of two different yet complementary beings - the vine and the rose.

Suis-je Amour ou Phébus ?... Lusignan ou Biron ?
Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine ;
J’ai rêvé dans la Grotte où nage la sirène...

"Am I Cupid or Phebus? ...Lusignan or Biron?
My forehead is still red from the kiss of the Queen;
I have dreamed in the Grotto where the mermaids sing..."

Now comes the turn in the poem from the speaker's lamentation of his loss to his meditation on how to respond to it and on his role as a poet. Not how the opening of the sestet reverses the declarative "je suis" at the beginning of the octet to the questioning "suis-je?". The references to mythology and folktale only hinted at in the previous eight lines now become explicit, as he explores characters from both Greek mythology and French legend as possible analogues to himself. Is he Cupid, the god of passion and eros or Phoebus, god of the sun, of rationality, of light? Is he Lusignan, husband of the fairy Melusine, or Biron, a French hero whose name also recalls the English poet? The tension between the enchantment of eros and the appeal of rationality and love of higher order is reemphazied in the two following lines, where the "kiss of the queen" merges with his dream of a mysterious grotto filled with mermaids. It's also important to remember that both Cupid and Lusignan lost their loves because of a transgression - Cupid because his wife, Psyche, looked at his face against his command, and Lusignan because he saw his wife bathing and thus discovered that she was really a mermaid. Apollo and Biron, on the other hand, are the pursuers of light, yet have no record of seeing what must not be seen; and as poets, they have the ability to do exactly what Nerval is trying to do in this verse: recall a joyful time that has now disappeared from physical sight.

Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron :
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée
Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée.

"I have twice crossed the Acheron, victorious:
Modulating by turns on Orpheus' lyre
The sighs of the Saint and the calls of the Fairy."

Now we get the explicit connection to Orpheus, the lute/lyre player, who crossed the Acheron in an attempt to retrieve his wife from Hades but who on the victorious return lost her once more, and decisively this time. As he goes, the melody of the lyre, mirroring the flow of the poem, "modulates" between the "sighs of the Saint" and the "cries of the Fairy": contrasting the dark night of the soul described in the octet with the alluring calls of myth (sestet) which may or may not turn out to be consoling.

It's easy to see what aspects of the Orpheus story Nerval wants to emphasize after having seen the contrast between the mythological figures of the previous tercet. He's fascinated by the way the poet seemingly has the ability to evoke his lost love (or whatever he's describing) in a manner so real as to make it almost present once more. Yet there's always the danger that as a human, under the influence of eros and other no less strong desires (curiosity and lack of trust in particular), he will "look back" against the command of the form, and realize that in seeking to ensure the presence of his loved one, he will seal his loss. You cannot be conscious of the fiction of the poem if it is to really make present what you are hoping to regain.

12 September, 2009

Frost's "After Apple-Picking"

I really liked Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" when I first read it this morning; I usually like Frost, just because the tone of his poems resonate so strongly with me. But I wasn't quite sure how to understand it, and when you really like a poem, you generally want to know why. So just as an experiment, I adopted Helen Vendler's tactic from her chapter on "Exploring a Poem" and started following through the poem bit by bit to get a real sense of what's going on. It's quite an exhaustive process that she sets up. I only actually went through seven of the thirteen steps she outlines, partly because I address aspects of the later categories (language, tone, etc) in these paragraphs, and also partly because I think that by the time I got to seven I had come out with a really satisfactory reading, and the rest of the steps were easier, mechanical ones anyway. Plus, it took a lot of work even to get this far! (And I do have real work to do.) I definitely recommend the method. I was quite skeptical of how well it would work on my first reading of Vendler, thinking I would need to be much more well-versed in poetics than I am to make use of her directives, but it didn't turn out so badly. It's not a perfectly polished reading, but it's nice to have a general directionality in a reading nonetheless.

The Poem:

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

1. Meaning:

The speaker is just finishing up picking apples. He perhaps hasn’t gotten every one of them, but he is tired and ready to finish by now. His vision has been rather strange ever since he looked through a pane of ice from the water trough (presumably in the morning, and he says that at that point his sleep was already coming on. He knows what his dreams will be like. He can still feel the pressure of the ladder on the soles of his feet. Now he hears still the apples tumbling into storage bins and announces that he’s already tired of the harvest he had so earnestly desired. It’s been too painstaking to carefully pick each apple, and each one that fell had to go to the cider pile, as though it were worthless. He says he knows what will “trouble” his sleep and wonders whether he will sleep like the woodchuck, waking in the spring, or whether he’ll just sleep an ordinary human sleep.

2. Antecedent Scenario:

The speaker has been apple picking, and has been at it for a long time, hoping for a huge harvest.

3. Division into Structural Parts:

There are two halves of the poem, and each opens with a description of some aspect of the experience of apple-picking and ends with a speculation about what his sleep will be like. There are rhymes, but these don’t seem to form a definite pattern, so I can’t see a way to break it up based on those. There also is the structural division of the sentences: 9 in the first half and 7 in the second.

4. The Climax:

I’m not sure, but there seems to be a climax in each of the two parts. In the first there’s the moment where he lets the ice fall and break, and unexpectedly abrupt, one might almost say violent, act in the midst of what had seemed a reflective and calm poem. Moreover you here get the very strange information that he was already dozing off to sleep before it fell – there is a temporal uncertainty introduced into the poem here that was not evident before. How could he be “well /upon my way to sleep before it fell” – a disjoint between the act of letting it fall and the (usually slow) process of falling asleep? And why would he be falling asleep in the morning? Also the glass is the very thing that has made strange his sight; his breaking it almost seems an attempt to break the spell that has been cast on him, yet an unsuccessful one as he “cannot rub the strangeness from [his] sight” and the vision gives him an impression of what his dreams will be like.
The second climax comes, I think, at the point when he announces that he is “overtired/of the great harvest I myself desired” . This also is a piece of information that we had not necessarily expected. True, he had already announced that he is “done with apple-picking now”, but the realization that he has been driven not so much by necessity, as we might expect for a New England farmer harvesting his crops, as by his own desire. Or perhaps we can conflate the need and the desire, yet the latter aspect is the one he chooses here to emphasize. This gives a new tone to the succeeding lines, and greatly influences subsequent readings of the whole. Why did he desire such a great harvest of “load on load of apples”? The following lines take this revelation and explain it: he had to handle “ten thousand thousand fruit” and this is the reason for his exhaustion; he returns to the theme of sleep and dreams, and we realize in context of the climax, that there is another sort of dream at play in the poem than just the dreams of sleep: also present is the unexplained and mysteriously wearying dream of attaining a superabundant harvest.

5. The Other Parts:

Each half of the poem begins in the present tense, switches to the past tense in the middle to describe an actual experience, and then returns to present tense. In each case, the first present tense part describes a current situation: the apple-orchard after he has left it, plus his readiness to be finished, and his continued sensory impression from the hours of apple-picking plus his sense of having had too much of it. The first past tense segment is introduced by a present tense sentence explaining that there’s something else strange going on here and attributes it to an action performed in the morning – the looking “through the looking glass” which commenced the confusion of temporal linearity which will proceed throughout the poem. The past tense segment of the second half recounts the exhausting experience of handling tens of thousands of apples and the concurrent disappointment that would be felt whenever his painstaking care would fail, and one would drop to the ground, fit now only for cider (that’s a bad thing?). And in each return to the present tense for each ending of a half, the speaker has moved to speculation about the quality and content of his dreams (and we see also, then, that though these two parts remain in the present tense literally, there is a sense in which they point to the future, raising the question of whether (first half) the sensory impressions of the experience will persist in his dreams, and whether (second half) the his sleep might not be the unconscious sleep of the woodchuck or “just some human sleep”.

6. Find the Skeleton:

The emotional curve of the poem progresses from a calm almost lullaby-like opening –he is ready to be finished with what he has finished well—to a realization of the strangeness of his morning vision, to a sense of less-than peaceful exhaustion, to a perturbed pondering of just what the quality of his sleep will be. One realizes in retrospect that perhaps he does have something to worry about: yes, he seemed satisfied at the opening of the poem with a job well done…but was it quite well-done? He mentions the “Apples I didn't pick upon some bough”, and the memory of the abandoned ladder still pointing heavenwards seems more discomfiting in the context of his later dissatisfaction with the product of his work. The spell cast upon him by the ice-plate’s vision, a spell which sends him into a dream-like reverie about the content of his dreams to come, seems as though it could have been informing him of something that was not quite right in his work, revealing what had been left unfinished yet possibly should have been completed. The trance-like state he enters causes him to see once more the apples still ripe upon the branches, waiting to be picked, and yet to re-experience the ache of the work and the monotony of barrel after barrel being stored in the cellar. There were “ten thousand thousand” fruit to not just pick but to “cherish”. Yet he has not picked and cherished all of these: some he picked and dropped (yet at least something can still be made of these), and some he simply left. The constant demand for attention that such a project made exhausted him, but despite this excuse he is left worrying that perhaps his dreams in sleep will be not quite what he might otherwise have expected. I can’t help recalling Hamlet here:
“To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.”

7. Games the Poet Plays with the Skeleton:

So up to now I’ve been developing this picture of the poem being an arc of realization on the speaker’s part that what he had thought he had done well was perhaps not so conscientiously performed and that he may not be able to rest in peace. But there are some small points here which leave us a lot of room to sophisticate the thesis, so to speak. For one thing, what’s going on with the woodchuck imagery at the end? There are (no surprise) multiple ways of interpreting that juxtaposition of the woodchuck’s sleep and human sleep. My default at the end of step 5 was to gloss it as a contrast between the unconscious slumber of an animal and the dream-filled sleep of humans (not that animals don’t dream; they just don’t experience them in the way we do) which can preserve the sensory impressions of the waking hours beyond the moment of falling asleep. But the dismissive tone of “just some human sleep” demands an explanation. I suspect that “just” is there to do a little more than to simply express the poet’s familiarity with human sleep as compared to that of an animal, although I’m sure that’s some minor part of it (or at least it works as a minor part of it). If we recall that the woodchuck is not just any old animal but specifically one which hibernates throughout the winter and is “resurrected” in the spring, a whole new dimension is added to this imagery. The poet is placing before him, perhaps, the alternative of dream-filled sleep in which:
“Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.”--
not the most pleasant of dreams, but rather a repetition of all the exhausting sensory experience that the speaker’s ambition for a great harvest caused him to subject himself to, but that he failed to resolve by truly finishing his grand project. Or there is the sleep of the woodchuck which promises a return to life at a time of new spring; reinvigoration and renewal.

Of course, we also have the whole Eden imagery running through the poem. I know very little about Frost or his poetry as a whole, but one thing I am familiar with is his constant recurrence to the theme of Eden (“Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a prime example of this). And what else can anyone who has even the barest minimum of a foundation in Western thought call to mind when we get a juxtaposition of images of apple-picking, transgression, doubt, and possible death? It’s slightly more confusing imagery than one might imagine at first. Why is his transgression apparently failing to pick the apples? Isn’t that a bit backwards? I’m not sure how much of a theologian Frost was, but coming at the poem from an orthodox Catholic perspective (I’m not claiming he was that—I have no idea) I would see his need to pick the apples as a sort of duty to work in a fallen world. If it weren’t for that original apple (or fruit, actually, because we all know Genesis never calls it an apple), the aches and pains of his work would not be there. In an Edenic state, his work would be easily completed with all the necessary care, and no fruit of his labor would be lost: he could easily achieve the “great harvest I myself desired”. But as things stand, it’s all too easy to drop the fruit, to not “cherish” it carefully enough. Now something good (cider) can come even from those failures, though it’s going to require even more work. The only apples that are irretrievably lost are those never retrieved. It is better to work and fail (because isn’t that inevitable, given the frailty of the picker and how quickly he tires? At least something can be salvaged from this) than to fail to work.

Of course, there’s not only religious (or perhaps not so much explicitly religious as Christian metaphysical) imagery entering into this poem. The pane of ice through which the speaker perceives his failure brings to mind another interpretation of the poem—not a contradictory one, but a complementary one. For what is an artist doing but looking “through a glass darkly” and using his imperfect powers of perception to bring about a clearer perception of reality? Though his sight may be obscured by the strangeness of the vision and by its imperfection, there is a reality beyond it that his vision enables him to strive towards an ever-clearer view of. The speaker lets the glass soon fall to the ground and break, but whether he was hoping to avoid this task as well (or perhaps the unpicked apples have been all along a metaphor for a lack of attention to such things) and to slip back into the rest he longs for, the moment of sight has struck his consciousness so that he can no longer see things the same way, but must from this point onwards be acutely conscious of the nature of his failure and teleologically oriented to ponder the nature of the broader truth behind and awaiting all that has happened.

11 September, 2009

El Desdichado - Gerard de Nerval

Je suis le Ténébreux, – le Veuf, – l’Inconsolé,
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie :
Ma seule Étoile est morte, – et mon luth constellé
Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé,
Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d’Italie,
La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon cœur désolé,
Et la treille où le Pampre à la Rose s’allie.

Suis-je Amour ou Phébus ?... Lusignan ou Biron ?
Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine ;
J’ai rêvé dans la Grotte où nage la sirène...

Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron :
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée
Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée.

This poem is jolly awesome. I had a two hour conversation with Dr. Dupree just about this this afternoon. It's very hard to understand at first, but that's because it's almost Symbolist in its use of imagery that stands as its own explanation rather than being explained directly (as the lesser Romantics were wont to explain their imagery, or I suppose as the much more admirable Metaphysicals would use an extended simile that had nonetheless a clear object). And if you don't speak French as a native in the first place, and are thus relatively unfamiliar with French folklore or the nuances/connotations of words, it's particularly hard, because missing the full meaning of a single image causes your interpretation of the rest of the images to be very unsatisfactory and incomplete, so inter-dependent are they all.

It's quite late right now, and I have Junior poet stuff to think about as well as French symbolists, so I'll provide a translation and explication tomorrow. I'm quite bursting with excitement to do this, actually, because this poem is so marvelous, and practically no English speakers know about it.

L'Art - Gautier

A very good example of how Gautier wrote, and a nice expression of his philosophy about writing. Note the syllabic evenness of his lines, the regularity of rhyme, and the careful word choice:

Oui, l'oeuvre sort plus belle
D'une forme au travail
Vers, marbre, onyx, émail.

Point de contraintes fausses!
Mais que pour marcher droit
Tu chausses,
Muse, un cothurne étroit.

Fi du rhythme commode,
Comme un soulier trop grand,
Du mode
Que tout pied quitte et prend!

Statuaire, repousse
L'argile que pétrit
Le pouce
Quand flotte ailleurs l'esprit.

Lutte avec le carrare,
Avec le paros dur
Et rare,
Gardiens du contour pur,

Emprunte à Syracuse
Son bronze où fermement
Le trait fier et charmant;

D'une main délicate
Poursuis dans un filon
Le profil d'Apollon.

Peintre, fuis l'aquarelle,
Et fixe la couleur
Trop frêle
Au four de l'émailleur.

Fais les sirènes bleues,
Tordant de cent façons
Leurs queues,
Les monstres des blasons;

Dans son nimbe trilobe
La Vierge et son Jésus,
Le globe
Avec la croix dessus.

Tout passe. -- L'art robuste
Seul a l'éternité,
Le buste
Survit à la cité,

Et la médaille austère
Que trouve un laboureur
Sous terre
Révèle un empereur.

Les dieux eux-mêmes meurent,
Mais les vers souverains
Plus fort que les airains.

Sculpte, lime, cisèle;
Que ton rêve flottant
Se scelle
Dans le bloc résistant!


So Théophile Gautier. The first poet I'm studying in my French symbolists class. He's definitely not a Symbolist himself, being more of a late Romantic than anything. Yet he rejected the loose, undisciplined verse-style of the Romantics and developed a classical form more rigid than even Classicism had demanded. He had a heavy influence on the Symbolists insofar as he relied heavily upon images to transmit an experience, and cultivated what for many early moderns would become the highest poetic virtues: detachment and clear statement (and of course, in that evaluation we see a decided return to elements of the Classical aesthetic as well).

He's most well-known as a precursor to the Parnassians, whose high opinion of themselves can be seen in their group's appelation, which is obviously meant to remind us poor mortals (at that time so woefully in the clutches of romanticism)that they, the true poets, drink at the fonts of inspiration on Mount Parnassus itself, ethereal home of the Muses and source of many poetic marvels. Anyway, they were quite enamored of his doctrine of "L'Art pour l'art" - Art for Art's Sake, a doctrine whose primary thrust was to reject any sense of purpose - such as social commentary, cultural criticism, portrayal of abstract or transcendent truth - in art, saying that for art to be truly pure it must be free from such "ulterior motives". They also cultivated Gautier's example of exact and faultless workmanship as an answer to the excessive sentimentality of Romanticism.

Now the Symbolists rejected the Parnassians' clarity and objectivity as overly realistic (in the sense of being in the style of Realism or Naturalism); they had the notion, rather akin to Keat's concept of negative capability, that art should strive to portray absolute truths which cannot be accessed directly or exhausted by direct and clear imagery. They did, however, love the musicality of Parnassian verse, a quality which Gautier's example had helped the latter to achieve; and they admired his doctrine of "L'Art pour l'art" and his mood of ironic detachment.

That suffices as a basic description, though I'm going to post a poem, for those who can read it, which is a good example of what I mean, and much more revealing than a prose listing of qualities. Analysis may follow in a later post, though I don't promise it, and if it happens, will most likely happen in French anyway, so it won't be much use.

10 September, 2009

Keats on Negative Capability

“. . . [S]everal things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare posessed [sic] so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium [i.e., the vestibule or in-between space] of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”
(Italics mine)

08 September, 2009

The Fall Semester, Anno Domini 2009

My classes for this semester:

  • The famous Junior Poet, probably the class most defining UD-ness both by its widespread reputation and its consummate awesomeness (and yes, the word choice there is deliberately mixed in tone)
  • Medieval Lit, a requirement for English majors
  • Russian Novel, a very interesting class led by two of the pillars of UD academia, Dr. Dupree and Dr. Cowan, son of Louise Cowan, and heir to some of the founders of the university
  • French Literary Traditions I; this is after taking Lit Trad III last fall semester
  • Elementary Russian I, taught by the Physics professor, who is fluent and makes up for our tragic lack of a Russian department in this Cold War-minded/capable of recognizing what de Tocqueville and similarly perspicacious men have always seen, ie that Russia and America share essential, and almost surreal similarities in a historical sense while differing wildly in culture school. (How's that for a tangled sentence? Basically I mean: UD should have a Russian department.)
  • and finally, a special reading course in French Symbolist poetry

I'm most excited about that last one, in some ways, because I wasn't sure that I'd be able to do something like this until the very first day of class. Basically I went to the head of the French department (who is going on sabbatical this semester), told him that there was no way that I'd be able to get a French major with the extraordinarily limited (understandably so, since practically no one here studies what is arguably the foremost literary language besides English in the world as far as English speakers are concerned) number of course offerings in the language each semester. I mentioned the fact that T.S. Eliot is my poet for J-Po, and explained my corresponding interest in the Symbolist movement that so heavily influenced him. Then I stated my proposition for this semester: instead of taking a fascinating yet largely impractical class in Elementary Hebrew, couldn't a study the French symbolists under the guidance of one of the teachers? And surprisingly, the answer was an enthusiastic "yes"! So now I basically have the privilege of being able to spend all the free time which I am not devoting to T.S. Eliot reading about and interpreting the (very arcane) works of poets such as Laforgue, Verlaine, Corbiere, and the not-quite-symbolists-but-connected Gautier and Baudelaire. And to cap it all off, I get to randomly go and have long conversations with the magnificently erudite Dr. Dupree (who does everything from tech trouble shooting in every department, to translating volumes of French poetry, to teaching classes in Old English) about anything he finds remotely pertinent. What could be a better way to get in an eighteenth credit?

04 September, 2009

T.S. Eliot's Dramatic Lyric

The quality of T.S. Eliot’s lyric strikes me as essentially dramatic, which is a rather strange characteristic for lyric poetry, a genre that – according to many literary critics – is notable for its lack of what we think of as drama. (Sharon Cameron: “Unlike the drama, whose province is conflict, and unlike the novel or narrative, which connects isolated moments of time to create a story multiply peopled and framed by a social context, the lyric voice is solitary and generally speaks out of a single moment in time”) You can have conflict in ordinary lyric, certainly, but not necessarily in the sense of a multiplication of persons in mutual conflict; yet this is precisely what you could argue that Eliot is doing in, say La Figlia Che Piange, and certainly in The Waste Land.

There is certainly continual conflict deriving from the uncertainty, ambiguity, and thematic tension of each poem. Furthermore, the strong rhythmic thrust to all his verse (a rhythm that is not regular but rather that follows the natural rhythms of speech, correspondingly changing its force when the emotion of the utterance changes) enhances this dramatic quality, giving it a real-world feel and also increasing the dramatic tension and sense of conflict.

But one of the most striking aspects of this dramatic quality (in the world of lyric poetry at least) is the multiplicity of voices in poems such as The Waste Land. Note in the Wasteland alone the variety of voices which make themselves heard: Tiresias, Mr. Eugenides, the Cockney, Marie, and so on. And as in traditional theater, it's in these conflicting voices that the conflict of the poem is expressed. Are these voices merely diffractions of Eliot's own narrative voice, expressing by their very existence his own internal conflict? Or are they meant to be heard as the voices of conflicting forces in society?

In Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot asserts the poet's need to sacrifice his own personality to the "collective consciousness" of his culture/tradition. Maybe for Eliot his poetic voice and his personal preoccupations can be conflated with the conflicts and contradictions of his own society: in voicing them as a single author, yet with many voices, he is perhaps reemphasizing that any society is essentially unified into one cultural entity. Yet the "collective consciousness" of one as divorced from its roots as he considered his own society is necessarily fragmented. Indeed, for Eliot, modern society is suffering not merely from a fragmentation of its thought, but from a fundamental schizophrenia rooted in the successful deterioration of a unified, objective sense of identity. Modernism's success in stranding modern culture without a tradition in which to find its meaning has created a void in the face of which individuals can either despair or desperately attempt to create their own meaning and identity.

Lack of cultural unity due to abandonment of tradition is precisely what Eliot is reflecting in his "cubist" method (of The Waste Land )of stranding cultural references as individual images that do not so much have a coherent meaning when juxtaposed as they provoke an emotional response of disgust with the emptiness of modern society (one cannot perhaps, even term it modern "culture") and elicit a desire for the type of meaning that a sound tradition (literary, philosophical, and -in Eliot's later poetry especially - religious) could provide. This is at least part of the explanation for the sense of alienation (again, often to the point of schizophrenia) of much of the rest of his poetry, though in most it is not as dramatically and jarringly expressed as in The Waste Land.

This sense persists in his post-conversion poetry, yet one does not get the sense that the alienation is so personal for Eliot any longer. In his adoption of the European and the Catholic traditions, he has a place, an identity, a more or less comprehensible role in time. The lack of cultural unity/identity manifests itself now as a societal malaise which the world around him suffers, but to which he now possesses the answers.

22 August, 2009


That's not a reference to chemistry. Rather it's to philosophy; specifically to the first of Plato's dialogues that appears in the Signet edition of Plato's collected works. My brother is reading the Republic and several others currently, and in a fit of nostalgia for freshman year of high school, I picked up his book and started from the beginning. I hadn't read Ion since way back then, and it's a much faster read at 20 than it is at 14, I can assure you.

For one thing, it's one of the shortest Socratic dialogues that I've ever read. Well actually, probably the shortest - even Laches seemed longer. I believe Cleitophon is the shortest that exists, but I've never read that one. Anyway, its remarkable conciseness: Socrates manages to turn the very pliable Ion's way of thinking completely around using even fewer arguments and examples than he usually needs to correct the generic dull-minded interlocutor. This brevity makes it quite an easy dialogue to follow, and the ubiquitous irony of the set-up and of the argument's course is much easier to pin down than usual.

In questioning Ion about the nature of his art of rhetorician, Socrates is basically doing what we would be if we tried to define the work of a literary critic; at least, so one might think of it. "The reciter," Socrates observes to Ion, "must be the interpreter of the poet's mind to the audience; and to do this, if he does not understand what the poet says, is impossible". This makes plenty of sense to Ion, who, though enthusiastic about his craft, hardly strikes one as the cleverest reciter of poetry to sing verse. Within a few paragraphs, he has Socrates running intellectual circles around him (as is Socrates' habit), as both begin to conclude that the reciter is altogether less qualified to judge the merit of the poet when, for instance, the poet sings of horsemanship than a skilled horseman, when the poet speaks of healing than a doctor. In other words, Ion is soon admitting, the reciter or actor has much less knowledge of anything that a poet writes about than the professional whose skill is that described; and any knowledge that the reciter does have is in virtue of his skill in that art. That is, a reciter may know the standards of good horsemanship because he possesses that skill to some degree himself, but only in virtue of that art does he know it, not in virtue of his art as a reciter.

Clearly this leaves them with the idea that there is no such thing as the art of reciting or acting, at least not such as Ion understands them and Socrates had just defined them at the beginning. Ion's proposed defense of the reciter's art is that he knows "what is proper for a man to say" - that is, he knows what a fisherman, a weaver, a slave, or a ruler would say in a given situation. But the argument Socrates has just used easily quashes that suggestion when he points out that surely a fisherman, a weaver, a slave, or a ruler would certainly know better than the reciter whether what the poet has written corresponds to the reality of the situation.

The dialogue ends with Socrates and Ion agreeing that the reciter really has no art or special knowledge at all: he is either a cheat, or when interpreting the great poets is "possessed by divine dispensation". Ion is serious. Socrates is most certainly not.

At least, it seems most unlikely that Plato, master of the literary art of the dialogue, would have so little respect for art that he would find it uninterpretable - or so little rationality that he would consider interpretation to be possible only through a divinely-induced frenzy. And of course, he never leaves the reader with a hard and fast conclusion to savour: these dialogues are meant to keep you thinking.

Well one of the first things this gets me thinking is that perhaps Plato wants to make a point about the nature of poetic art as compared to that of manual crafts or theoretical skills. The close connection he draws between the work and the interpreter necessarily makes us think, as he discusses the nature of the interpreter's understanding, also of what is being understood. Poetry is not one of the arts with a concrete, useful result, like a plow made by a blacksmith that can help create a garden, or a mathematical formula that allows certain buildings to be built; it is not, as Josef Pieper would say, one of the "servile arts". Thus it's not something that is properly encountered as a blacksmith would approach a "how-to-forge-a-good-plow" manual. You don't just want to judge poetry on the skill with which it describes isolated activities. It's a thing much more organic and coherent than a how-to manual; if it is good poetry, at any rate, it will say something not so much about fishing or smithing, as it will say something about the meaning of life. Yes, accuracy in the details is important, but only insofar as this will help give a truer picture of what life as a whole is truly like and how human beings will interact with this world.

The accuracy of description is not the end of poetry, though Ion quite misses the point and easily falls for Socrates' trap when the latter suggests that it is through his incessant questioning. And if there's some other type of truth present than the purely utilitarian, there is something more in poetry than a fisherman, a blacksmith, a horseman, or any other type of artisan will know by virtue of their art. There's nothing preventing the busiest artisan from being an interpreter of art on some level, but now the tables are turned from when Socrates suggested that the reciter only can judge the virtue of poetry by means of other skills that he possesses. It is not the case that the artisan will truly understand parts of Homer because he is a seaman and Homer talks about ships; rather he will understand all of Homer and be capable of judging his work, insofar as he understands human nature and something of what life in the world is all about.


A rejection slip from a Chinese economic journal, quoted in Financial Times:

"We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity."